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Electoral reforms - Democracy through dialogue

When Ashoka set up Buddhist councils for public engagement around 300 BC, he was both borrowing from tradition and contributing to later history.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2006 00:06 IST

When Ashoka set up Buddhist councils for public engagement around 300 BC, he was both borrowing from tradition and contributing to later history. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that emperors Ashoka, and Akbar, separated by nearly two thousand years, built and retained legendary empires through dialogue and reason.

Unchanged between 300 BC and 2006 AD is the validity of what the noble laureate calls “government by discussion,” for growth and harmony.

Throughout its chequered history, India has never been easy to govern; not even by its own people. In the last fifty years, the world’s biggest democracy has survived trying interludes of repression and chaos. The coun try’s political ledger shows, arguably, a surplus of democratic dividend but an incremental crisis of legitimacy of its leaders is now seriously threatening that balance.

We can’t take for granted the maturity of democracy when the country’s immense election machinery has been sending more and more criminals, conmen and rabble-rousers to parliament, fouling the quality of open dialogue and depreciating the freedom of choice.

HT Research team analyses the issue of electoral reforms in these columns. The graphic below summarises democratic alternatives to enable us to measure our First Past the Post System (FPTP) against what is working better in many other countries. It identifies some vital areas for radical rethinking. The first write up looks at the current lacunae and next one discusses the most im portant recommendations made by numerous committees appointed so far to reform the system.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 91 percent Indians don’t have faith in their politicians. Another survey, by Centre for Studies of Developing societies (CSDS), shows that 88 per cent Indians are in favour of democracy.

The obvious deduction is that the ordinary people resort to electing the least corrupt or the cleanest among the crooks because of a verita ble lack of choice. This ultimately nullifies the principle of citizens’ sovereignty because they have no control over the quality of Parliamentarians they elect.

The legitimacy of representatives is as important as the genuineness of polling exercise. By now we know that holding free and fair elections alone can’t make politics a noble profession. We need to institutionalise transparency and legitimacy in funding elections, proper disclosure of assets and antecedents of candidates. The feudal political party structures will have to be transformed into forums for policy debate and action if we want some semblance of honesty to coexist with power.

The parties look for a candidate’s ‘winnability’ above everything else be cause the numbers get them to power. Building of institutions matters because statutory bodies like the EC change the parameters in which the politicians and political parties have to operate. That’s why policy reforms need to be enforced by law and monitored by statutory authorities with powers to disqualify violators.

To be fair to the political class, the equations of caste and community would not matter if the electorate voted purely on merit. Different political parties did come together in 1989 to amend the Representation of the Peoples Act to enforce re-poll in the event of booth capturing. They seem almost unanimous once again on state funding of elections, which may not automatically curb corruption in public life but would be a welcome first step in that direction. All we need is some more public pressure.

It is true that we are at the mercy of politicians and parties as the ultimate power to make and amend laws is vested in the country’s Parliament. But it is equally true that the checks and balances of democracy allow a fair leeway to institutions like the judiciary, the EC, the executive and the media. For instance, responding to a PIL, the Supreme Court directed EC in 2002 to collect affidavits from all contestants with details of criminal cases, assets and liabilities. Though the political class tried to dilute its effectiveness through ordinance, they could not ignore the agenda for reforms set by the Court’s landmark judgment.

A government by discussion requires the media and the civil society to come together and militate against corrupt practices and the system’s lack of transparency. A vibrant media is already doing a good job. The very fact that normally less than 35 per cent MPs manage to return to Parliament and mighty governments are dislodged rather routinely testifies that ordinary voters are capable of making informed interventions to correct the distortions in the system.

First Published: Apr 07, 2006 00:06 IST